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Robert Braswell provides the defensive spark Syracuse needs

An unlikely bench player has turned himself into a key rotation player for the Orange.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia Syracuse Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team plays in the NCAA Tournament, all the attention turns to the 2-3 zone.

Even though this year’s Orange zone isn’t as good, the unique defense continues to confuse opponents who aren’t familiar with its properties. As opposing offenses become more and more efficient as the tournament goes on, Jim Boeheim needs to rely on his trademark defense to hold the scoring at bay.

The way that the Hall of Fame coach has achieved that is by making key substitutions to drastically improve the performance of the zone. The most often change that Boeheim has made is to bring Robert Braswell in to play one of the wing positions. During the season, the redshirt sophomore would only come on for a couple of minutes before returning to the bench. However, as the Orange have switched to postseason play, his role has been greatly increased.

Braswell has played over 20 minutes in Syracuse’s last four games, which have all been postseason contests. He only played double-digit minutes in seven Syracuse regular season games. Fans probably expected Kadary Richmond to be the player with the most minutes off the bench for the Orange. Yet in postseason play, Braswell has been the bench player with the most minutes in every game.

Syracuse v West Virginia Photo by Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The short bursts that he received during the regular season showcased the defensive boost that he gave the Orange. He showed great anticipation to passes that were intended for the low post or for a backdoor cut and cut them off. During the postseason, his defensive IQ has kept notable three-point shooters such as Sam Hauser and Jordan Schakel quiet.

That perimeter defense is what makes Braswell so important to Syracuse’s zone. The nature of the Orange defense invites opponents to shoot contested threes. Braswell is very good at not immediately collapsing on ball handlers when they enter the paint. He knows when to support low and when to stay back and loiter near the perimeter threats. His presence denies the kick-out pass for three that so many high post players love to throw when playing against the zone.

Defensive knowledge is also what has kept Braswell on the floor during the postseason. Alan Griffin and, to a lesser extent this season, Quincy Guerrier, have a bad tendency to over rotate and collapse to the ball when it gets into the dreaded high post area. That, as mentioned above, leaves the kick-out three open, which Braswell covers so well. His presence means the ball gets stuck on the perimeter, leaving the opponent no choice but to force up a low-percentage shot.

While Braswell’s court time is largely due to his defense, his offense has picked up at just the right time. Orange fans caught a glimpse of his offensive potential in Syracuse’s first game against Pittsburgh where he scored 12 points. Braswell’s next four highest scoring games this season have all come during this postseason run in the ACC and NCAA Tournament.

Braswell has turned himself into a much-needed additional three-point option for the Orange. He’s 7-of-14 from deep in the postseason, for an even 50% clip. Braswell has not only hit some big momentum shots from deep. He’s provided some limited but important inside scoring that has rounded out his offensive game with limited opportunities.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Syracuse at West Virginia IndyStar-USA TODAY Sports

This is Braswell’s first real shot at an opportunity to crack Boeheim’s regular rotation, and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time. Before this season, he only played double-digit minutes for Syracuse once in 19 games. Braswell’s defensive improvement and knowledge has increased his play time to a point where he’s needed to keep Syracuse in games.

Syracuse’s zone usually terrifies opponents during March. But not many thought that a two-time South Carolina high school jump champion would be one of the key reasons why that defense continues to confuse the nation’s top basketball programs.